The 2012 action-thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" captivated millions of Americans with its intense depiction of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the dramatic raid to kill the Al Qaeda leader. The Oscar-nominated film was lauded for its gritty authenticity and steady, deliberate pacing.
It also placed viewers in the middle of an event that is still an intense topic of fascination for the American public, with director Kathryn Bigelow calling the death of bin Laden "one of the great stories of our time."
That's exactly what her film was — a story, not a precise document of the events that culminated in bin Laden's killing. And that story was partly influenced by the Central Intelligence Agency, which gave Bigelow and her producers unprecedented access to the agency's classified documents on the intelligence that led to both the finding of bin Laden and the raid on the Al Qaeda leader's compound.
That cooperation, a subject of controversy ever since the film's release, is explored in "Secrets, Politics and Torture," a documentary on PBS' "Frontline" program that aired Tuesday.
The documentary accuses the CIA, which had been heavily criticized for its use of waterboarding and other forms of torture in its treatment of Al Qaeda suspects, of using Bigelow to push its own agenda — to show that torture yielded actionable intelligence, that waterboarding got a suspect to give up information that led the CIA to the most wanted terrorist on earth. "Zero Dark Thirty" includes a dramatic scene of a suspect being waterboarded and then later giving up information that many years thereafter leads to bin Laden's location.
That account was questioned in 2013 and 2014 by investigators working for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which also issued a lengthy report in December that challenged the CIA's assertions on the effectiveness of torture.
In fact, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then the chair of the intelligence committee, was so incensed by "Zero Dark Thirty's" depiction of torture's effectiveness that she walked out of an advance screening of the movie after only 15 to 20 minutes.
"I couldn't handle it because it's so false," she told "Frontline."
"The movie left the American people with the impression that torture worked and that without it we never would have been able to trace the trail back to Abbottabad and to find bin Laden," former Bush administration counterterrorism official Richard Clarke told "Frontline."
And former Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado), who was a member of the intelligence committee, calls the movie "a form of propaganda, so that the general public believes this is what happened when in fact the facts don't prove that to be the case."
When controversy first stirred after the film's release, Bigelow wrote an op-ed article in The Los Angeles Times to answer her critics and to emphasize that she personally did not condone the use of torture. She added (emphasis ours):
Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.
A representative for Bigelow told Business Insider that the film was made independently and relied on a variety of source materials. So the question remains: Just how much of the narrative in "Zero Dark Thirty" is the result of the CIA's unprecedented degree of cooperation with Bigelow, and its attempts to get the film to promote the agency's preferred version of events?
When contacted by Business Insider, producers for "Frontline" said they did not reach out to Bigelow for an interview. Asked whether director Michael Kirk had any evidence that the CIA's cooperation with Bigelow was more about spinning her than just correcting any perceived inaccuracies in Bigelow's script, the producers responded:
We carefully reviewed the many e-mails about the interactions between the CIA and the Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers. These documents, as well as our reporting, depict a close relationship between the agency and the filmmakers, including a discussion about what should be included in the film. A number of the documents are available here: http://www.judicialwatch.org/blog/tag/zero-dark-thirty/. In addition, as you probably know, there are a multitude of sources and public statements that show the CIA's position that their interrogation program led to bin Laden, a storyline the film depicts.
After the film was released, reports emerged about the extent of the CIA's cooperation with the filmmakers, and some lawmakers in both parties and commentators were outraged that top-level access on "the most classified mission" in history was given to a Hollywood director.
The cooperation went all the way up to the top of the government — including Leon Panetta, then the CIA director, and Michael Vickers, then the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. According to a Pentagon inspector general's report: "Leon Panetta was fully cooperating with the movie project and that several CIA staff used White House-approved talking points to talk to Mr. Boal [the producer of Zero Dark Thirty] about the intelligence that led to UBL's [Usama bin Laden's] location."
Later, it was reported that the inspector general tried to suppress details of that cooperation, as revealed by the Project on Government Oversight.
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